This summer we launched our Sustainable Earth Small Business Awards (SESBA) and chose 15 winners who showcased outstanding sustainability commitments. In our new podcast, The Green Scene, we have conversations with the trailblazing SESBA winners about walking the sustainable walk. In our first episode, Drink Me! Tea Room | Making Sustainability Scrumptious, we sit down with the owner of Drink Me! Tea Room, Melissa Harlan. Drink Me! Tea Room is a gluten-free plant-based tea room that is Green Business Certified through Local First Arizona. The tea room’s mission is to provide a sustainable business that has less negative impact on the environment. Our conversation with Melissa dives into how she integrates sustainability into the company culture, why sustainability is important, and tips that she has for others embarking on similar endeavors. 

To Melissa, a tea room is a place for joy. She wanted to create a space where people could come and connect over tasty tea. Sustainability was important to her, because “Sustainability is being kind to other humans.” There was a learning curve for Melissa as she transitioned from corporate America, budgets, and spreadsheets, to designing and running her own cozy tea room. But, she took steps when planning her business that made achieving sustainability goals much easier. 

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From the very start she wanted the business to be a reflection of herself, which is why the tea room is gluten-free, organic, and plant based. Melissa eats a gluten-free vegan diet and found it frustrating when restaurants only served one or the other with very limited options. She said that the tea room is a place where customers don’t need to ask a million questions about what is in the food. As a plant-based tea room, sustainability is already baked into their business model through avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions, chemical inputs, biodiversity loss, and animal abuse associated with animal-products and factory farming. But their initiatives to lessen their environmental impact don’t stop there. Recycling, composting, minimizing waste, conserving energy and purchasing local, organic, or plastic-free products are all efforts that Drink Me! Tea Room focuses on. 

“I think it is a part of who I am. I had surfer, hippy parents, and so I think that it was instilled in me early that we are going to conserve things and not use disposable things when we can.” Melissa said. By building the core of her business around the idea that the tea room would be a reflection of herself, Melissa was able to pursue using the company’s purchasing power to support suppliers that have similar sustainability initiatives. “When I have to put money into this business, I want to make sure that I am spending it the right way, now. Not have it be something where later on I’m eating a cost to make a change. I’m going to make sure to do it right the first time.”

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The tea room was built inside vacant storefronts that did not have kitchens, which gave Melissa the power to choose the “right opinions” for building materials, not the cheapest ones. Their light fixtures are motion sensored with LED lights and the cabinet fronts and countertops are made with recycled plastics. Melissa also had to ask the city to install a recycling bin. “Um… I think you’re missing one.” She said, when they went out back to check the dumpster area of the complex.

When running a food business, diverting waste by composting is a great solution to lessen your environmental impact. Food waste and other organic materials that make their way into the landfill are deprived of oxygen and don’t break down naturally. Instead, they liquify and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. “I knew going in, the tea room would be composting. Definitely everything would be composted. It wasn’t a question. That started from day one.” Said Melissa, “All the food waste, all of the paper, everything gets composted.” Melissa was able to partner with a company and to set up a composting program at the tea room. They receive a weekly pick up of their 60 gallon barrel, which is pretty much full at the end of the week. The tea room is also able to cut down on food waste by mainly serving customers through reservations. Since they have a fairly accurate estimate of the number of customers they are serving, meal and tea prep can be much more precise.

Melissa indicated that the key to successful sustainability initiatives is working with your team to set up systems and processes that are documented, reviewed, and trained. She is always open to new ideas and is consistently collaborating with her employees to make sure the processes are the best way to be doing things. 

Throughout the episode, Melissa doesn’t skip the details of how she is able to run a successful vegan gluten-free tea room. From her ambitious business missions that reflect her own personal beliefs, to her employee engagement and awesome marketing team, don’t miss out on her insight, advice, and charming personality with this episode of the Green Scene.